"When you photograph me, I feel everything leave me. The blood drains from my face, my eyelids droop, my thoughts disappear. I can feel my facial muscles go limp. All you have to do is to give me that one cue, 'Don't smile,' and zap. Nothing. That's what you get. What you call introspection looks to me like lost, empty, half dead."
Irving Sultan, father of well-known California-based photographer Larry Sultan, is not overly enthusiastic about the photographs his son has been taking of him and his wife, Jean, photographs that are part of Larry Sultan's ten-year labor of love titled "Pictures From Home." Sultan's project--an examination of his parents' lives, his own life and the elusive American dream--is on view at Scottdale Center for the Arts until August 20.
"Pictures From Home" is a self-conscious family photo album, combining enlarged family snapshots from Sultan's 1950s childhood, stills culled from 8mm home movies, memorabilia from his father's career and Sultan's recent photographs of his parents in their retirement home near Palm Springs. Quotations from his parents, as well as their often-exasperated commentary on the photos, provide a deeper understanding of the show.
The family images follow the Sultans from Brooklyn through their migration to Los Angeles in the 1950s--the barbecue, baby Larry jumping through a Hula-Hoop, the picnics, the Disneyland vacation, cigarettes unabashedly dangling from tanned fingers, smiling faces toasting the camera, family pets and a succession of increasingly impressive homes. This is the stock-footage past of upwardly mobile postwar America, the American dream that Larry Sultan attempts to reconcile through his images of his own family, reflecting those of millions of other suburban baby boomers.
The childhood images seem to contain an implicit social analysis, betraying the irony that Sultan, albeit gently, directs toward his parents' generation. Enlarged, uniformly sized and mounted in black metal box frames, they look like a convention-booth photographic collage of postwar America. The show pushes beyond the realm of memory into history, especially his father's history, around which Sultan has said the project originally revolved. The photographer traces the evolution of his father from a cub salesman into a vice president of the Schick Safety Razor company. An office-size alcove dedicated to images of his father documents business successes with letters touting Irving Sultan's sales prowess, company photos and an amazing collage of company-dinner portraits of the good-looking, intensely coifed Irving and Jean Sultan. The display follows Irving's more or less forced retirement after his refusal to move back East following a corporate takeover at Schick.
Sultan bridges the gulf between the images of the American dream and how he really sees his parents through his own work--emotionally loaded photographs that examine his parents' routines since their retirement. Images of Irving preparing for a dip in the pool and practicing his golf swing are uneasy, hinting at a life of quiet desperation.
Irving Sultan is a man who spent his life moving forward and now he's been forced to stop. He doesn't quite fit, something that is vividly expressed in Larry Sultan's image of his father, dressed in suit and tie, seated on the bed. He is staring pensively beyond the camera and seems somehow too big for the room.
My favorite images are of Sultan's mother, Jean, who in retirement has become a real estate hot shot. An amusing addition to the show is an enlargement of a portrait that Jean had asked her son to take of her for the real estate section of the Los Angeles Times. Overlying the portrait is Larry Sultan's text explaining that his mother despises the pictures so much that "she refused to tell anyone" that her son had made them.
"Here I am top saleswoman in the office and I'm the only one in the newspaper that doesn't even look like a sales agent. Who would buy a house from someone who looks so severe?" she demands. "I hate that picture."
A wonderful book accompanies the show and fills out the empty spaces in family history left by the installation. With added text, conversations and family bickering over the project, the reader sees a tenderness in Sultan's bond with his parents that is missing from the show.
And this feeling really was the inspiration for the project, though, as Sultan says, it took him ten years to realize it. The project Sultan originally conceived was aimed at showing "what happens when--as I interpreted my father's fate--corporations discard their no-longer-young employees, and how the resulting frustrations and feelings of powerlessness find their way into family relations."
But as the years progressed, the photographer realized that his goal had all along been "to stop time. I want my parents to live forever."
"In the Last Hour: Sandy Skoglund Photographs and Sculpture, 1979-1992," also at Scottsdale Center for the Arts, features cibachromes of the artist's complex and, in a couple of cases, arresting installations.
Skoglund is known for her images of monochrome environments populated by animals, and this group of work constitutes the most interesting pieces in the show. In "Revenge of the Goldfish" (1981) and "Radioactive Cats" (1980), Skoglund's photographed installations resemble sets for conceptual one-act plays. Set in a boy's bedroom awash in ocean greens and swarming with floating, bright-orange goldfish, "Revenge" positions the spiritual sterility of day-to-day existence against a vivid natural force which swims from the shelves, drawers and window casements.
The ominous gray, Sovietesque kitchen in "Radioactive Cats" teems with oxide-green felines that probe and investigate every aspect of the room while an elderly couple, dressed in gray, go through the motions of their lives, unfazed. Animal installations like these and "Fox Games" (1987) and "Gathering Paradise" (1991) seem to depict a world gone seriously awry--where the earth's color knobs are being tinkered with and nature, in a mischievous form, takes over.
Some of Skoglund's photographs look dated--especially the ones that seem more typical of a fashion shoot than an art installation. The combination of spiked hair, ill-fitting suits, loud ties and wraparound shades just doesn't hold up. As a result, a few pieces like "Patients and Nurses" (1982), with its chubby floating RNs facing red-clad patients wearing germ masks and headphones, and "The Lost and Found" (1986), featuring an unfortunately dressed New Wave couple listlessly gazing away from a totaled purple car, would work perfectly as covers for a Cars or Klaus Nomi recording. Also showing is Skoglund's "Cocktail Party 1993," which consists of roughly sculptured, full-scale figures entirely encrusted in Cheese Doodles. One would think that Doodle-caked guests could get any party going--but this one is going nowhere. The figures are turned away from each other and have that lost-in-anomie quality captured in George Segal's plaster cast tableaux from the 1960s.
Playing on Skoglund's "Cocktail Party 1993" installation, the Center is sponsoring a "Count the Doodle" contest. She or he who divines how many pieces of the brilliant orange snack food are contained in the Plexiglas box stationed in the lobby wins a Sandy Skoglund tee shirt and a pair of concert tickets. Loose Ends
And the Chee-to fest, with accompanying bravura, marches on. Right on into "A Museum in the Making: Photographs From the Janssen Collection of Fine Art," at Scottsdale Center until September 10. The exhibition features photographs from art collector Stephane Janssen's numerous holdings, including Sandy Skoglund's photograph of the "Cocktail Party 1993" installation. The show is wonderfully diverse and encompasses photographic work ranging from the gorgeously textured "Loriki With Spear" (1994) and other work from Herb Ritts' "Africa" series to Dana Salvo's delicately tinted still lifes of religious altars and human remains to the mass-media deconstructionist lenticular photos of Barbara Kruger. Also included are works by Robert Stivers, Ann Sanchez, Luis Gonzales Palma, Misha Gordon, William Wegman, Todd Webb, Cindy Sherman, Stefan De Jaeger, Patrick V. Brown, James Balog, Harold Waldrum, Jeff Weiss, John D. Mercer, Herbert Lotz and Duane Michaels.
Don't miss it.
"Latin American Women Artists: 1915-1995," which opens July 8, is the debut exhibition of the new Phoenix Art Museum's Special Exhibitions Gallery--the first phase of a renovation and expansion effort that will eventually double the size of the museum. The Latin American show will include paintings, sculpture, fiber, graphics and multimedia installations by Frida Kahlo, Olga Costa, Anita Malfatti and other artists.
Good news is that admission to the show is free. PAM will not be charging entrance fees until June 1, 1996.
Speaking of pauperizing oneself through museum visitation, I spent the past couple of weeks in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Growing up in Washington, D.C., leaves one forever with a sense of ghastly moral injustice at being charged a fee for entering an art museum. The new San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, designed by Swiss architect Mario Botta, is worth the $7 admission, though. Glowing with skylights, pale wood and polished granite, the museum, which opened this past January, stirred thoughts of finding a nice corner away from the guards where I could just set up housekeeping. The permanent art and design collections are incredible, with works from the old museum plus, owing to the doubled exhibition space in the new building, previously storaged works. If you do happen to be by the Bay before August 27, check out "Scream Against the Sky," a show documenting the rise of the Japanese avant-garde following World War II. Social protest art, Tokyo artists (including Yoko Ono!) who were involved with the Fluxus movement of the 1960s, and bizarre, so-called "obsessional" art, which explores in multiple media sex, madness and death, are all included in this amazing show. It'll make you gasp for air.
Many bizarre events occurred during the recent venture to earthquake territory, but none quite so earthshaking as when, as I emerged from the Tonga Room, a landmark tiki bar in the Fairmont Hotel, a thoughtful young man with a Dutch boy haircut furtively sidled up, stuffed a wad of paper into my hand, and walked away. On the paper was typed "The naval Orange is the first fruit a little child eats to receive an enlightened MIND. Teacher and Guide."
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On the other side was the equally cryptic "BI-FURCATED TROUSERS! Throughout the heavily populated dense snow countries worldwide, it is necessary to utilize these Bi-furcated trousers. BILL BLASS: Ownership of a designer's clothing industry. Respect and Honor. Plenty of wisdom and understanding."
Madness, art or Zen riddle? You be the judge. I didn't see much art in L.A. because I was simply too busy rubbing elbows with superstars, including the evil police lieutenant in Pulp Fiction who assisted during the accosting of Bruce Willis in the "gimp" episode. At the end of my diminutive producer-type pal Todd's baroque explanation of just who I was witnessing, I got to glimpse the back of the bad policeman's head whisk out of Small's bar. Very intense.
And, locking into some mighty Thai oysters and sake martinis at Tommy Tang's, I saw a girl who I think I saw once on television.
And that, my friends, is just how glamorous a life can be.